Looking into infinity. The new walkway connecting the Milwaukee and Chicago airports.  73 miles to the baggage claim.

 

Well I’ve been living in Milwaukee for the better part of a year, but I’ve just begun to explore the zone outside the city limits, which the nice folks at the farmers’ market tell me, is that fabled land called “Wisconsin.”

I was afraid it might be a bit dull, to a New York sophisticate like myself.

What a relief to encounter true and large-scale weirdness.

 

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This spring, on a cold, rainy day, I rented a car and  ventured out-of-town.  At first, it looked a lot like where I grew up, especially the cows, but as we drove along the Wisconsin River, toward the upper Mississippi,  we entered the “Driftless Area,” winding through sharp little ridges and valleys, sometimes wooded.

And then we visited a very strange place indeed.

 

 

 

Even weeks later, thinking it over calmly, my reaction is still the same – it seems less like a real memory, than a drunken, moldering dreamscape.   Fun, even charming, but also a bit spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from a collection of antique coin banks. These were labelled “Clowns Are Trump, You Pays Your Pence and You Takes Your Chances”

 

About forty miles west of Madison, beginning in the late 1940’s, and working through the ’50’s, a man built a house in the woods, on top of a rocky outcrop.  He called it “The House on the Rock.”

 

 

In a pretty commonplace region of cow pastures, woodlots, small towns, this experiment sticks out, literally and figuratively, as a strange, strange place.

A stray fragment of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy realm, Tim Burton as the architect, soundtrack by Tom Waits.

 

 

An immense cabinet of curiosities, sideshow extraordinaire, and hoarder’s storehouse of earthly “treasures,” the place where Antiques Roadshow goes off the road.

A crackerjack palace, decorated by Liberace, with every shelf & nook & cranny stocked by the Ringling Brothers & John Lennon, tripping on LSD, raiding every flea market, boardwalk, and carnival, Rube Goldberg tinkering in the back room.

P. T. Barnum’s ghost wanders through, and is humbled.

 

 

 

We didn’t plan on being there.

Family was visiting – – all of them Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts – – and we were headed to Taliesin, Wright’s home and workshop.

The two houses turned out to be a yin & yang thing.

The day we visited Taliesin, the weather was perfect, and the guides were well-informed and well-rehearsed, if a bit dry.

 

Taliesin

 

Wright’s artistic creation was well worth the drive – – an organic-seeming creation, the model of the perfect prairie house, in harmony with its surroundings, and almost spartan in its clean lines.

Yeah, so, we can talk about all that art & balance & perfectness & good taste some other time.

 

And now for something completely different.

 

 

Because the day after visiting Taliesin, we went somewhere else entirely – – a place all about the unhinged and the off-kilter and questionable, about trickery and cheesy excess – – you know, more like the America we actually live in, and that’s what this post is about.

 

Spaceship landing on what appears to be a chocolate cake.

 

It is truly impressive.  I remembered a quote from Dolly Parton:

“It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap, honey.”

 

 

It was a weekday, off-season, and the weather was crummy – – cold, gray, windy – – and that is absolutely when you should visit, when the place is nearly empty.  We almost had the place to ourselves.

Just a few miles from Taliesin, but it was another world.

Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, another local guy also built a home and workshop up on a hill.

It was described to me as “interesting…different…maybe the biggest tourist attraction in the state,” by someone who’d never been there, but we decided to stop by.

I hadn’t read anything about it, and you cannot see the place from the road.  The lane winding through the trees gives you the first inkling – – lined with giant bronze vessels, with metal lizards attached to the sides.

 

 

A word about my photos for this post: SORRY.  This is a big overstuffed post, but these are snapshots on the fly, in really dim lighting.  I had family visiting, and gotta keep the old folks amused & moving, or they get cranky and rust up.  But if the pictures are sometimes fuzzy and a bit hard to decipher, that’s actually the way it seemed when I visited – – a huge murky space lit by low-wattage colored bulbs. Some stuff  is in cases with fluorescent lighting and dusty glass.  Think of the photos as a slightly out-of-focus slide show, after having a few cocktails, that’s the feeling I’m going for. 

 

To call it a house is inadequate.  Yes, there is a house – most of it, a dim, low-ceiled, cave-like conglomeration of amateur rough stone, old stained glass, church bells, firepits, and… shag carpeting.  Lots of musty-smelling shag carpeting.

Lots & lots of tchotchkes, statuettes, knick-knacks, bottles, iron pots, etc.

Ebony figures from Africa coexist with imitation Tiffany lights.

 

 

 

 

Lots of graying, yellowing, browning books – the man read anything and everything, apparently.  A wood staircase is lined with bookshelves, for three or four floors.

 

 

 

You come to a big room with slanted windows, looking out over the countryside, and carpeted tiers, what I believe was called, back in the day,  “conversation pits.”

 

And then, the first bit of weirdness – you realize the music you’ve been hearing, appears to come from a mechanized little orchestra, sawing away at “Bolero.”  Complicated contraptions, looking like drunken mashups of hydraulic valve lifters and bits of pinball machines, with a dash of Edward Scissorhands, seem to be playing actual instruments.  You’ll encounter a number of these robotic ensembles, sometimes, I think, just going through the motions while recorded music played, but drums and other instruments were definitely playing – – amazing, impressive, and often sounding kinda awful.

 

 

 

 

If Fred Flintstone moved to the Jetson’s neighborhood, and Wilma started hitting eBay and garage sales, this would be their house.

So I guess I’d call it Groovy, or Cool, Daddy-O, or possibly Yabba-Dabba Doo!

 

A wall made of slabs of glass, with colored lights behind it.

 

And…I’m underwhelmed.

It’s fun, kind of cozy, and the colored glass windows are great, but mostly it’s a higgledy-piggledy maze of eccentricity and clutter, with a dash of tackiness.

 

A number of decorating themes slug it out in the house – – some vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright elements, Asian, African, Flintstones, etc. but the dominant motif was “Rec Room”

 

But the experience hadn’t really even begun.

The entire complex is a “house” in the same way the USS Intrepid is a “boat.”

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about “the man” who built this place.  His name was Alex Jordan, Jr., and he apparently was what my grandmother used to call “a real character.”  And I’m not going to tell you about him.  You may have already googled him, you definitely should.

There’s also a fun video filmed there, by the band “10,000 Maniacs,” (from Jamestown, NY, yea!).  It’s a re-make of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”  (The video was done after Natalie Merchant left the band, and their cover isn’t as good as the original, but it gives a good idea of the place.) https://vimeo.com/108524874

You go up to the roof to admire the view, then down past a minimal, vintage kitchen, and a couple more Buddhas.  Did I mention there are a whole lot of Buddhas sitting around?  Indoors and out, big and small, in gravel courtyards and tucked into niches.  They seemed a little dubious, like garden store knockoffs, looking less contemplative than baffled, just like the rest of us.)

 

 

And as the sound of the endless “Bolero” begins, mercifully, to fade, you hear, around the corner and down a corridor, the theme from “The Godfather.”

And then you enter something that’s that’s not weird, cluttered, and uneasy, but just plain great.

The Infinity Room.

 

 

An enclosed, glassed-in room – – a covered bridge shaped like a Viking longship, juts out, cantilevered to what seems an impossible distance!   You quickly realize the optical illusion, and (spoiler alert) it really isn’t infinite, but it is over two hundred feet long, with a glass window to look down at the far end, at the pine trees and boulders you’re suspended over.

There’s a rocky outcrop underneath, somewhere, to balance the weight of the thing, but you can’t see it, and it just seems like the coolest treehouse-and-walk-the-gangplank-observation-room any daydreaming kid ever sketched in his notebook during geometry class.

The wind was kicking up, the day we were there, and the room creaked and swayed a bit, which was cool, but you could tell it was OK.

And anyway if it did collapse, how cool it would be to toboggan down the hill, through the pine trees, yeah, with the theme from the Godfather echoing in our ears, and the tinkling sound of countless imitation Tiffany lights smashing!

A wonderful external picture on the “Highest Bridges” website http://www.highestbridges.com/wiki/index.php?title=Infinity_Room_at_the_House_on_the_Rock

 

Outside, in the fresh air, smelling the pines, is a garden with a little waterfall, in the Japanese style, as done by a Holiday Inn.

 

And connected to the house, by a series of roofed, somewhat decrepit walkways, are labyrinthine warehouses.  You walk past a waterwheel, into a sort of millhouse, with suits of armor and random artifacts everywhere, including the men’s room.

 

You are entering a delirious steampunk world.

 

You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

 

Acres of massive hangers, filled to the brim with outrageous jumbles of collectibles mixed with giant industrial machinery (an iron drive wheel, bigger than a car, a massive steam tractor, a ship’s propeller, huge electric generators) arranged into cityscapes, draped and intersected with dim colored lights.

 

I don’t mean a few Christmas lights.  They walked into J. C. Penny, and bought every made-in-Taiwan, ruby-glass kitchen light fixture, and grouped them into interwoven, homemade chandeliers of impossible sizes and scales, dangling eerily.

 

It is a glorious shambles – – creepy in places, charming in others, and sometimes a bit sad.  I don’t want to call it “surreal,” because I think “hyper-real” is closer to the truth.

If you’ve ever played “Myst,” a mystery video game from the ‘90’s, you’ll have a similar sense of a semi-abandoned fantasy realm.

 

 

The dimly-lit corridors and sloping catwalks are sometimes a bit disorienting.

 

 

 

 

 

You can feed tokens into antique arcade games – some work, some don’t – decrepit musical machines from a hundred years ago, some still squawking out tunes from Edison rolls, others plinking plaintively from music boxes, or huffing asthmatically from dusty pneumatic  systems.

 

Life-size mannikins jerk into action, pistons and gears and cranks beat out tunes.

 

 

 

 

Player piano rolls unroll, mallets & hammers tap on bells, drums, glass cylinders, chimes.

 

We dance to a Charleston-era tune wheezing from a massive ancestor of the jukebox.

 

 

 

Describing this place seems kind of impossible.  Nothing really does it justice.

 

A huge old diorama, perhaps once impressive, but now creepy as all heck, looking like a decrepit anteroom to the netherworld. I finally remembered what it reminded me of – – an episode on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery called “Camera Obscura,” based on a Basil Copper short story.

 

It is almost overwhelming.

You may think I exaggerate.

No, my regular readers protest, not Robbie!  Not that straight arrow, scrupulously-reliable-fact-checking-chronicler-of the American Way!

And this may all seem like pretty tame stuff, really.  It’s just the volume of it all that kind of swamps you.  Like that scene in “Moscow on the Hudson,” where the recent immigrant from Russia, overwhelmed by choices, faints in the breakfast cereal aisle.  And the dusty stillness of some sections – – they really ought to put bells on the darn maintenance guys, so when they’re tinkering with something behind the scenes, and then step out suddenly, they don’t give you a heart attack.

I got a drink of water, straightened up, and told myself “We’re Americans, darn it, we like stuff!  The more the merrier!”  And pressed on.

 

 

 

 

Another robotic band setting. The museum’s creator, Alex Jordan, designed animatronic figures and mechanical gadgets to play musical instruments.

 

The Smithsonian is far, far more extensive, with over 100 million artifacts, and is often called “America’s Attic.”

Sometimes in idle moments, I wonder what those people want with, for example, 140,000 taxidermied bats, but it’s Washington, D.C. another focal point of weirdness.

 

An assemblage of drums reaches up several stories. I do not know why there are birch trees.

 

You want clocks? We gotta lotta clocks.

 

 

 

The House on the Rock is on a more modest scale, but its chaotic and mostly unlabeled collection seems worthy of being “America’s Basement,” at the very least.  Parts of it might be the props storeroom for Cecille B. DeMille.

 

 

Life-size scenes of medieval mêlées, with armored elephants, depicting…ok, I do not have the slightest idea.

 

 

Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine museum, with glass cases along claustrophobic aisles, and sometimes, like an antediluvian amusement park

 

 

A three-story wooden clock, just past the remnants of a massive old electric generator

And another difference from any other collection of Americana I’ve visited. – -some of this stuff is junk.  By which I mean, it’s unabashedly phony.  Homemade neo-Victorian nonsense is jumbled together with genuine antiques.

 

Rusting outside, is a real cannon or howitzer, probably WWI French or Belgian.

 

A room of firearms contained clearly fantastical creations, like 36-shot pepperbox pistols, that looked to be cobbled together from bits of old piping.  The flintlocks appear to be brass-bedecked tourist items from the Casbah, or perhaps a theatrical prop room.  Naval 32-pounders might have come from a movie set.  Larger items, like a two-story cannon, must have come from defunct circuses or sideshows.  They’re all together, and you’re left to distinguish the real from the imaginary.  Or not.

 

 

 

Heading toward one of the larger mechanical bands, you walk up a dim brick-paved Street of Shops – – storefronts stuffed with antiques.  I paused to take the picture below, of the pale, glass-eyed dolls, staring back from their baby carriages, and was left behind by my group.

And honestly, when the place is empty, it felt a bit creepy, a place one feels watched, and doesn’t want to be alone in.  When a maintenance man appeared out of the shadows, I froze for a couple of heartbeats.

 

 

Overall, it’s not creepy.  But still.

Life-size and doll-size shops

 

After admiring the first dozen dollhouses, I walked and walked past innumerable more examples, barely looking at the tiny tea sets and miniature domestic tableaus, and then, out of the corner of my eye, noticed one tiny figure had apparently given up on escaping, and had tucked a shotgun barrel under his chin.

 

 

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I think there is about an acre of miniature circuses

 

 

The H.O.T.R boasts a number of carousels, but you cannot ride on them. The biggest, claimed to be the biggest indoor carousel in the country, has many creatures, but not a single horse.

 

Instead, the walls of the huge building are covered with the wooden horses.

Hovering overhead are a host of dissolute-looking department store mannequins, like vengeful ghosts from shuttered Macy’s and Gimbels, ready to snatch people like me, who fail to color coordinate – –

tarnished angels in the architecture, women in loose gowns, with huge wings attached.

I imagine they’re intended as angels, but, especially since some are missing hands, or suffering wardrobe malfunctions, they looked like inebriated and menacing Valkyries.

 

 

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Huge glass bells, part of the carousel music machinery

 

Another, smaller carousel, is reserved for hundreds of dolls.  And at least one skeleton.

 

The carousels are spectacular.

 

 

 

At some point, just after looking at more spittoons than I’ve ever seen before (which spilled over, so to speak, into the adjoining exhibit areas), continuing to march along ramps, walkways, and corridors, feeling pretty stunned by the sheer mass of it all,  we  found ourselves in a nautical area.

 

 

 

And as you enter the four-story warehouse, with walkways and cases winding up the walls, looming over you is a giant model of a whale fighting a giant squid.

 

 

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I could not estimate the number of ship models.  Clippers, carracks, caravels, aircraft carriers.  Some were museum quality, some were toy-like, and some would have looked at home hanging over the bar in Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.  The Titanic hitting an iceberg.  Big tin Spanish-American dreadnoughts.  Scrimshaw, some real, some fake, scattered amongst the models.

 

 

 

 

Towards the end, shambling along in mostly stupefied silence, we entered the newest wing, for model airplanes.  (Too tired to even attempt a pun.)

 

 

 

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I actually feel that you can learn something from this place.  I’m just not sure what that is.  They call a lot of this stuff “memorabilia,” but what exactly are we remembering?  Mostly, I’d say, those dreams we get after eating a pepperoni pizza, while watching Vincent Price in “House of Wax.”

 

 

One thing that popped in my head.  The scale and variety of this vast repository, and the jumbling of steam engines, generators, and other industrial detritus, with the toys and old arcade amusements, strikes me as perfectly right & proper.

When American fired up the Industrial Age, it also started cranking out industrial entertainment, and decorative knickknacks. “The Theory of the Leisure Class” came out in 1899, and introduced the idea of “conspicuous consumption,” that is, buying stuff you don’t need, to show off.

Permanent “amusement parks,” like Coney Island, boardwalks & piers full of rides, penny arcades, and coin-fed fortune-telling machines, etc. and huge “expositions” or “World’s Fairs” started popping up, peddling technology and manufactured fantasy.

 

 

You can learn a lot about a place, and a time, by visiting serious museums, symphony halls, art galleries, etc.

– – but life isn’t all dioramas & statues, Beethoven & Rembrandts, is it?

It’s also beer & skittles, the Dead Kennedys, hotdog stands, snow globes, and graffiti.

In Wisconsin, a state that prides itself on its blue collar solidarity and working stiffs’ pleasures, the House on the Rock takes our pride in unrefined fare to a memorable extreme – – amassing thousands of the cheap thrills of yore, kitschy games, and diabolical-looking toys from the five & dimes, carnivals, fairs, and toy shops.

A house built not on sand, but on bric-a-brac.

 

A turn-of-the-last century mechanical novelty, one of dozens, mostly still functioning – – pop in a token, and the barber begins to shave – – and a policeman pops up in the window. Any idea what this was about?

 

It’s a blast. 

Wear comfortable shoes, and brace yourself.

 

 

Call me Ismael ~ ~ Confronting the giant plaster whale ~ ~   Ish & The Fish

 

Me & me old mum, in front of robots playing kettledrums. She hates clutter, and yet loved this place.

 

1870's, 1890, 1920's, 1930's, 1950's, 1960's, Arrant Nonsense, craft projects for lifers, History, Uncategorized, United States, wisconsin

House on the Rock. A walk through mass production and madness.

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Milwaukee has a plethora of delivery startups.  T’uber delivers baked potatoes to your door.  They partner with ForkLyft, which supplies cutlery.  There’s AirB&B (beer & bratwurst by drone), DroneDrone (drones delivered to you by drone), DroningDroneDrone (CNN transcripts to your doorstep), FroshDirect (essays for first-year college classes), Amazons (heavily armed women) (to intimidate your cat when it’s having a manic episode).

 


Flash News from Milwaukee


Most people in New York, where I grew up, and Maryland, where I went to college, have never been to Wisconsin, and don’t know much about it.

Some confuse it with Minnesota, others believe it’s the capital of Saskatchewan.  One mentioned exile to the steppes, and offered to write the Tsar for a pardon.  Most visualize Life In The Land of Bland – – a monochromatic, mayo-white-bread place, awash in Schlitz, bratwurst, jello salad, Sons of Norway lodges, and endless “Laverne & Shirley” re-runs.  And cheese.  “Processed American Cheese Food,” that yellowish stuff the Dept of Agriculture is always stockpiling in Area 51 warehouses and old missile silos.

Yeah, Milwaukee does have its share of bland –  smiling but reserved Midwesterners, making guarded, ambiguous comments – but the city is also a lively, interesting, multicultural place, and a great place to find good food.  A vibrant, diverse, “minority-majority” town – comprised not just of German/English/Irish stock, but Polish, Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Asian (especially Hmong), Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Serbs, Scandinavians, etc.  They host one of the biggest Native American gatherings every year.

 

Margherita Pomodora, Goddess of Pizza. Knowing a bit about these characters just comes with the territory. I grew up west of Syracuse & Corinth, south of Junius and Tyre, north of Ithaca and Romulus, east of Attica and Corfu.

And I was happy to find there are a least a few people of Greek and Italian descent, and some Mediterranean-style eating places.  You may have seen the Greek flags waving in the stands, since Giannis Antetokounmpo started playing for the Bucks.

So while the city has all the usual delivery and ride-hailing services  – Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, etc. – the ride service I use is staffed entirely by Greek and Italian immigrants.  And it changes its name weekly.

In its first incarnation, it was Quicksilver Messenger Service, but  that was already taken, by a hippie band in the ‘60’s. So the next week, it was Mercruiser, but that’s the outboard motor company in Fond du Lac.  Then MoussakaKar, followed by Quo Vadis, Dude?, Ben Hur’ry, ToGaToGo, and currently, Bona Fide Ride.

Saturday, I was starving for Greek food – gyros, souvlaki, and the local classic, Spam-ikopita – and kept chanting under my breath, “I wanna go to Golden Acropolis,” and somehow summoned this weird old driver, Hermès.  He skidded to the curb in a beat-up old Zephyr, once silver-colored, and he had this whole Mercury theme going, wearing a cap with little wings on it.

He jumped out with an Olympus point-and-shoot, mouth going a-mile-a-minute.

“A quick snapshot of each passenger, my memory is fleeting, c’mon,  jump in, your chariot awaits and all that, you can call me Hermes, Quicksilver, whatever, just don’t call me Freddy Mercury, alright?”

There were little wings on his sandals, too.

I figured he must be from Minneapolis.

He popped a Styx 8-track in the player, put his foot down, and his bucket of bolts peeled out.  I heard Sirens wailing, but we made it to the gyro place faster than was humanly possible.

 

 

He waved off the tip, “Save it for the ferryman, at my age, I don’t need drachmas, I don’t need drama, I don’t need…” and off he went, like a silvery streak of extra-virgin-olive-oil-greased lightning.

Yeah, I’m just gonna take the bus next time.

 

Mercury in his salad days. Some people feel the burn, others feel the breeze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I recognized him, of course.  Hermes/Mercury, The Messenger.  A lot of the old Greco-Roman gods, semi-retired now, live around Brady St, or the Shorewood area of Milwaukee.  Tzatziki sauce and lightning storms all over that neighborhood.

Ceres has a vegan place called “Ancient Grains,” Vulcan has forged a chain of body shops.  Bacchus tried opening a wine bar (dude, in Milwaukee?), went broke, and I think is in rehab somewhere.  Hermes opened a seafood place with another guy, but “Neptune & Mercury Fish” didn’t go over well for some reason.

 

Mercury, working off the clock. Grand Central Terminal (LOC photo). To his left, Hercules is obviously worried about that bird, and seems to be sitting in a machine shop, which is normally Vulcan’s thing.  Minerva is ignoring the other two, while she works on a grocery list, to add to the salad bar she’s got going up there.  This busy little tableau is also called “Progress with Mental and Physical Force” or “The Glory of Commerce,” and both of those are darn catchy titles.

 

I was surprised to see Hermes just driving around, especially with a V8 getting 12 mpg, but he told me, yeah, he’s the Patron of Thieves, Liars, and Tricksters, but his Titanic success in Washington had actually scared him a bit.  “I’m not really a bad guy, just kinda fickle, y’know, mercurial, who needs The Messenger when everyone’s texting, right now I’m focused on Auto-Mobiles and Transporting…”

A real live wire.  But riding shotgun in the cab, was some glum, totally boring type, humming tunelessly, that I didn’t recognize.  At home, I looked for him in my Big Book of Forgotten Deities, riffling through a whole horde of lesser Greek & Roman gods, demi-gods, heroes, satyrs, etc.

After a half-hour, I’d gotten as far as Hypnos, the somnolent god of sleep, and his semi-famous sons, Morpheus & Phantasos, the gods of dreams – – at least a nodding acquaintance for most people.

Hypnos had literally a thousand other offspring – – one thousand kids to keep in sandals, he’d say, and they had to share their birthday parties – – always joint affairs at Chuck-E Cheese,  to save money.  And then, in a photo from one of the parties, skulking in the corner, with no one talking to him, was the guy from the ride:

 

 


Phragmites, The God of Monotony. 


Hypnos can make us sleep, Morpheus & Phantasos can shape our dreams, but Phragmites is so very dull, he can induce a coma.

And I realized, as if waking from a dream, that’s what I wanted to write about today.

 

A plumed phalanx of phragmites invades a marsh.

 

Phragmites australis, a/k/a common reeds, are now everywhere.

You may wonder, along with countless screaming Argonauts, why did I wander

so far into the weeds,

to just talk about reeds

Yeah, it’s a ridiculous segue, but honestly, I cannot hear Phragmites without thinking it’s some sort of Greco-Roman hero.  One that fights Hydras, or at least Hydrilla.

 

 

(So, just to be clear, this is a segue, not a digression, ok?  I’m not digressing anymore.  It would be cool to work a Segway in here, as a modern-day chariot for Mercury, but that would be a digression.)

 

I am seeing phragmites everywhere.  Ponds, marshes, ditches, drainage swales, unused parking lots, etc. – – it’s like hearing Justin Bieber songs on the radio, why is this reedy crap everywhere I go?  Chesapeake Bay, all around upstate NY, and now in Wisconsin.

 

 

You’re probably surprised I didn’t work in the story of Syrinx, the Naiad-nymph who was fleeing Pan, and was metamorphosed into a reed, which was then made into a Pan-flute. But I didn’t want to be panned for a digression, so pipe down.

 

There are several varieties of these reeds, including one native to the eastern U.S., but the ones I’m talking about are aggressive and invasive.  The native plants are not a problem.  They mix, they mingle, they get along well with the other plants.

The invasive strain, which can spread ten feet in a summer, crushes diversity, crowding out cattails and other native marsh plants, and forms dense, pretty much lifeless thickets.

Just like some of the talking heads on TV, you ask yourself, how can anything this monotonous, dull, and boring, be so successful at taking over?

It’s simple.

They poison the neighbors.

This is called allelopathy”  and you probably already  know that.  I’d heard about this tactic, because there’s black walnut trees all over New York, and you’re always told, don’t try growing a garden anywhere near them.  But the walnut trees seem to practice restraint, because often there’s ferns etc. , thriving all around their trunks, and anyways, the nuts are delicious.

 

“Monotony has nothing to do with a place; monotony, either in its sensation or its infliction, is simply the quality of a person. There are no dreary sights; there are only dreary sightseers.” I’m not sure about G. K. Chesterton’s idea.  I can see beauty in a sea of reeds, but, sorry, the omnipresence of common reeds does make them monotonous and dreary, and I like cattails and a healthy, lively ecosystem better.

 

The invasive phragmites seem to be much more zealous – – the plant equivalent of Assad, pursuing total war with chemical attacks.  They poison and disintegrate neighboring plants, and I’ve seen cattails, for example, be eliminated from some small marshes in just a few years.

 

 

 

Here’s a good succinct article:

University of Delaware. “Invasive Plant Secretes Acid To Kill Nearby Plants And Spread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071012084128.htm>.

And how to tell the native vs invasive reeds:

http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/idpmctn11494.pdf

 

Horsetails, I’ve read, have been popular since the Paleozoic, come to think of it, I think they predate horses, so how did folks back then pick that name? Anyway, they seem to be on the decline in the Finger Lakes, perhaps due to competition from phragmites, loosestrife, etc.

 

Monocultures, whether it’s farming, fields, or woodlands, are a problem.  There are marshes overrun with purple loosestrife, and others with nothing but these reeds.  Some woods in the Finger Lakes now have nothing but garlic mustard as the undergrowth.

 

garlic mustard

 

Now, “The Naturian” blog just listed some recipes for garlic mustard pesto, so there’s a positive, and you can certainly find beauty, and a kind of calming music, in a rustling thicket of reeds.

It’s the lack of balance that’s the issue.  A lot of things beginning with “mono” kind of stink, if you think about it.  Monotonous, monopolize, monotone, “Kissing disease,” monocles, etc. Gardeners tell me that monocots are OK, but I prefer a regular size bed.  There’s wonderful monotone of course, B&W photography, but a lot of the time, I’m hungry for color, kind of a Kodachrome guy, makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.

 

Van Gogh’s “It’s not the heat, it’s not the humidity, it’s the monotony”

 

I hope I’m not being too subtle, so >here’s another segue< .  (I heard that Barry Manilow song “Copacabana” and at some point, he yells out “Key change!” so I guess it’s ok to announce a segue.)  It’s a pretty obvious analogy here today.  Monocultures are boring, whether it’s in cities or wetlands, and it’s not good for you, it poisons the land.

I grew up around marshes full of iris, ferns, Joe-Pye weed, arrowhead, cattails, salamanders & sycamores, willows, pussy willows & winterberry, redwing blackbirds, egrets, milkweed & muskrats – – and I don’t enjoy going back to find a  expanse of unbroken, lifeless, dun-colored boredom.  And then moving 500 miles west, and finding the same dreary reeds have spread here, too.

Life should be a variety show.  There’s something wonderful and stimulating about places with a teeming mix of plants and animals, people and cultures.  A complex mosaic, not the dull monotonous prosaic.  I like to hear new music, sample fantastic new foods, maybe learn a few new words, or even new ideas.  Hear the full orchestra, not just the reeds.  I’m happy to live in a town enlivened by immigrants, old-time and new.

But what’s to be done about these pesky plants?  I’m in talks with Mercury about a food delivery “Pesto Presto” and already lined up some guys in Parks & Recreation to start yanking the garlic mustard.  The reeds, I guess if Washington succeeds in returning us to the Dark Ages, we’ll be glad to have materials for thatched huts.

 

 

 

 

food, Great Lakes, milwaukee, Uncategorized, wisconsin

Mercury & Poisoning

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